Meditation on Life Choices

This one is for you if you are sitting at life’s crossroads, wondering  which direction to take with your life.  Should it be the high street, the country lane or the overgrown path that few others have walked down?  Maybe you are trying to decide whether to stick out your secure job until retirement, or take a chance on a new direction.  You could retrain or do a further qualification.  Maybe you are going through a transition (leaving school, parenthood, moving house, graduation) and you are not sure what comes next.

Girl, Crossroads, Choice, Way, Direction

Whatever dilemma you face, using visualisation is a great way to get in touch with your intuition and the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind, created out of all your memories and experiences.  Sometimes when we relax and empty our mind, and just stop analysing everything for a moment, an image arises which contains some kind of message about how we really feel deep down.

This happened to me recently when at at the end of a particularly busy week of working, writing, yoga, family activities and cooking for guests, I sat down and invited my unconscious mind to offer to me an image.  The image that came to mind was of a blacksmith hammering something into shape.  I knew that it was me hammering myself –  forcing myself to achieve all the things I wanted to achieve.  When I allowed the image to change to reflect how I wanted things to be, the blacksmith stood back and allowed the metal to shape itself in its own time.  This felt like a clear message that what I needed was to allow things to unfold rather than drive myself so hard.

The following visualisation is has slightly different instructions and may help you to visualise several paths or options so you can explore how you feel about them.  To get started you will need a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted for ten or fifteen minutes.

  1. Lie down on your back if this is comfortable, or on your side if it is not.  You can put cushions under your knees and head if this makes you more comfortable.  If it is chilly, cover yourself with a blanket. Close your eyes.
  2. Take a few deep breaths or sighs, and breath out any tension.  Tense and relax each part of your body, including your shoulders, jaw and eyes.
  3. Breath into every part of your body.  If any part still feels tense, send it a gentle message to relax – “relax my shoulders, let my shoulders relax”.
  4. Set the intention to allow whatever images arise to arise, and accept them just as they are, even if they seem strange.
  5. Imagine yourself at a crossroads.  What kind of roads or paths are there?
  6. Take the road or path that seems most inviting and walk along it.  What do you see?  How does it feel to walk this way?  What is there along the road? Is there anyone else there?  Imagine you have walked five years down this road?  Now how does it feel?  What are you doing? Has anything changed?
  7. Once you have explored this road enough, go back to the crossroads and try another pathway.  What is this pathway like?  How do you feel?  Again, walk five years into the future down this pathway and see how it feels?
  8. If you want to, you can come back to the crossroads and try a third road.  You could also re-visit either of the first two roads.
  9. Once you have explored as many roads as you want to, allow your mind to relax again.  Take a bit of time to focus on your breath and just see if anything else emerges.  When you are ready, you can bring some movement back into your arms and legs, turn onto your side for a few minutes, and then open your eyes and get up.

You may have quite a clear sense of what each path represents, but it may not be immediately obvious.  Perhaps one path feels riskier, but it’s not clear what risk you are contemplating.  It may be that further insights come to you some days later, or they may not come at all – you can’t force them, but you can invite them in by making quiet time to contemplate.

If you would like to read more about working with images, I recommend Dr Dina Glouberman’s book, “Life Choices Life Changes” which has many more activities using visualisation to support your decision-making.

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Intuition and Lazy Questions

Intuition is often touted as the best way to make a life changing decision. We need to tune in to our gut feelings, get in touch with our inner purpose and the direction to take will become clear. But is intuition always all it is cracked up to be?

Psychologists distinguish between two types of thinking, System One and System Two.   Daniel Kahneman, in his great book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”  describes them almost as two characters inhabiting the same person since they work quite independently of each other in different parts of the brain.

System One operates mainly beyond conscious awareness, scanning the environment, making connections between what is around us and our bank of stored memory.  It is on the look out for threats or stimuli that need a response.  System One comes up with quick intuitive judgements about all our every day decisions (and many of our larger decisions as well).  Once System One has decided on an opinion or course of action, it sends signals to the body through “gut feeling”, intuition, bodily sensations and emotions.  System One can sort through many memories and emotional connections in a very short space of time, which can lead to uncannily good intuitive decision-making in areas where we have expertise and experience to draw on.  We can, however, find ourselves following System One’s directions with very little conscious thought, sometimes entirely on autopilot.

System Two is our conscious, cognitive analysis.  If you are asked to calculate 34 x 16 you will need to use System Two to work it out.  You would also use System Two to work out which is the best type of stationary to order based on costs, quality, delivery times and features.  System Two would also be pretty good at helping you build a complex spreadsheet, based on the data analysis you will need to do.  System Two is pretty good at all this logical analysis but it does not do creative, intuitive leaps very well.

System Two is often lazy, and can be easily overloaded with complexity.  This leads to all sorts of cognitive bias as we then start to default to System One again.

When we ask System Two to perform a very complex analysis, such as what career would best suit me, what school I should choose for my children or what house I should buy, it sometimes gets overloaded and defers back to System One.  System One is not very good at logical analysis, but it is great at substituting an easier question for the difficult one.  If we ask System One what career would suit us, it might substitute the easier question of “What career do people like me tend to do?” and then start sifting through the memory banks for familiar careers that appear to be inhabited by similar people.

The Brexit referendum is a good example of a very complex question which most people probably answered using System One thinking.  We might have started out trying to use logic and reason to follow the complex arguments about the impact of Brexit on the economy, but since the arguments are so complex that even economists cannot agree, most of us probably defaulted to System One thinking and substituted the easier question of “How comfortable do I feel mixing with people from other European countries?”  Having come up with an answer in System One, we then looked for logical arguments to support this answer.

System, Network, News, Connection

Here are a couple of examples from my life to illustrate:

Yoga Teacher Training

I have been investigating yoga teacher training courses recently.  I’ve visited a variety of potential teachers in the last few months to explore my options and been to some interesting and varied classes. It’s a complex decision with many factors to weigh up – cost, time commitment, quality of training, success rate of graduates, likeability of tutors, curriculum, and the thorny question of which profession body to align with.

In the end, my System Two gave up and referred back to System One, which substituted the far easier question of “How did I feel when I was in each teacher’s class?”  Well, that made the answer obvious, and so the decision is made!  Of course, System Two is now justifying it with all sorts of rational arguments for why the chosen course is actually the best course for me – the residential weekends, the style of yoga, the experience of the teachers – even though none of these features had particularly jumped out at me when I simply looked at information on the website

How to Evaluate the Performance of Our Service

And here is a work-related issue for contrast.  We are currently grappling with the complex question of how we evaluate the performance of our teams in work.  There are many factors to consider.  What data and evidence should we use? How much resource should we invest?  What framework should we use? Who really needs to know the answer and what will they do with the information?  How will this drive improvement?

The questions are complex and the answers are not obvious.  System Two should be working hard to solve this!  However, since it is so complex, it is very tempting to let System One take over.  Now, System One will never be able to solve these problems, but it can substitute an easier question, which is “How much do I enjoy doing this sort of analysis?” Since the answer is that it is not really my favourite task, System One will send this message back, and System Two will pick it up and start to create a rational answer for the harder question based on my intuitive response. I am likely to argue the case, in all good faith, for putting less of my resource into this task, and genuinely believe my own rational arguments.

Being more aware of cognitive bias and the workings of System One and System Two can help us to recognise the times where System One thinking may not be doing a great job and we need to activate our System Two thinking, even though the analysis is tough.  It can also help us to recognise when System Two has reached it’s limits, perhaps because the problem is just too complex to analyse logically, and we need to let System One and our creativity and  intuition have a go.

The Tyranny of Must and Should

“I must decorate the house.” “I should loose some weight.” “I really must tidy up the garden.” “I should get a promotion or a new job.” “I should make sure my kids have a home cooked meal at the table every night, using cutlery and table manners.” “I should keep busy.” Whose thoughts are these? They are in my head, but I’m not sure they are really mine.

The clues are in the “musts” and “shoulds.”  Pretty much any time we notice ourselves or someone else using these words, there is another voice present. And surprise, surprise, it’s often a parent, although it could be a teacher, friend, boss or partner.

When we are children, our parents are there to watch over us every minute, to keep us safe, teach us to behave well and be sociable.  As we get older, teachers and other adults also take on part of this role. By the time we are old enough to act independently and look after ourselves without constant supervision, we have internalised the voices of our parents and teachers.  Even though they are not physically there to watch over us, their voices are inside us, keeping us safe, well-behaved and sociable.

A child starts to walk to school on their own and their parent’s voice inside their head reminds them to look carefully before they cross the road.  Teenagers are starting to think for themselves, and reject some of this parental guidance, but nevertheless, the internal parental voice will guide them some of the time, though probably not as often as the parents would like.

Parental voices become our conscience and our guide. Our values and moral compass are developed out of these voices, and our inner health and safety monitor is too. Most of the time, this is a good thing. It keeps us safe. It helps us uphold good values. It helps us fit into society and hold down jobs. Most of the people who created our internal dialogue meant well! We should be grateful to them.

But sometimes these voices create a prison of “musts” that don’t serve us so well. “I must tidy the house,” is ok if it stops the house from becoming an unsanitary tip, but not so good if it means I can never relax in my own house. “I must get a promotion” could help me to work hard and achieve my potential, which could be satisfying, but it could also prevent me from seeing what will really bring me satisfaction at work and take me into a role that doesn’t meet my creative needs. “I must keep busy” makes me very productive, but sometimes stops me from enjoying the present moment or taking time to reflect.

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So, maybe it is time to notice all those “musts” and “shoulds” in our internal dialogue, and ask how well they are serving us. It is time to notice who exactly is telling us what to do and how to behave and whether we still like their advice. We need a little quiet time with ourselves to find our true selves and intentions. We need to find values and goals that reflect our authentic selves.

i genuinely would like my kids to have a healthy meal as a family most nights, but no harm will come to us if we eat pizza with our fingers in front of the telly once a week. In fact, it is fun and brings us closer. I do like stretch, creativity and challenge at work, but a promotion isn’t necessarily my best path to a satisfying role. I like to potter about in the garden, and it doesn’t matter if it is a bit untidy; in fact it might even encourage the wildlife. As long as the house isn’t a health hazard, it is fine. And being healthy is more important to me than being thin.

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!